I very much wanted to love Heathers: The Musical, which you will find screaming its head off at the Tempe Performing Arts Center for the next couple of weeks. I've counted Daniel Waters' 1988 film about murderous high schoolers among my all-time favorite movies since its release, and was looking forward to seeing what Stray Cat Theatre would do with Kevin Murphy and Laurence O'Keefe's 2010 musical adaptation.
What they did with it was feed it drain cleaner and shoot it in the heart with ich lüge bullets. This production did not, as one of the Heathers might have said, go to prom. It went to hell.
Waters' Heathers movie, directed by Michael Lehmann, is a brilliant black comedy that turns teen angst into a sinister snicker at high school's low points. His trio of popular girls, all named Heather, are brainless beauties who adopt heroine Veronica Sawyer. When she falls for new kid Jason Dean, their Westerberg High classmates begin dying. Presumably these beleaguered seniors are committing suicide, which becomes a "hot prob" and the next teen trend. This musical adaptation was workshopped in Los Angeles, then moved to off-Broadway, where it enjoyed a healthy five-month run last year. But its misdirected local production, like an obstreperous teen, mostly glowers and shouts and offers an occasionally pleasant performance.
Perhaps taking his cue from Heathers anti-hero Jason Dean, who grumbles that "the extreme always seems to make an impression," director Louis Farber has asked his cast to bellow each and every line of O'Keefe and Murphy's raucous score. To be fair, these are mostly uptempo rockers, but new arrangements by music director Curtis Moeller might have brought some subtlety to an enormously noisy number of songs.
Sara Sanderson's sass and solid pipes make her the head-of-the-class Heather; poor Elyssa Blonder might have done as well or better, but I couldn't tell you, so distracted was I by the microphone taped squarely to the center of her forehead. As Jason Dean, young Cole Brackney, who I liked so much in Stray Cat's Pluto, has been cast again as an emotionally unwell teen — this time one who can't sing. He's a jolly good screamer, though.
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Fun references to late-'80s junk culture — swatches, slushies, Hands Across America — and Nicole Olson's clever choreography, which tucks '80s dance moves into nearly every number, couldn't cancel out the headache-inducing effects of a thunderous score played at the same strident tempo.
An opening night audience of Heathers fanatics was thrilled, all the same, with these dilettante doings. They laughed and clapped at neatly repurposed lines from the movie, and thrilled to how the playwrights turned bits of Waters' dialogue into full-blown songs. I found myself dreading the next of those tunes, certain it would be another bombastic cacophony. I was never disappointed.
Heathers continues through Sunday, December 27, at Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th St. Call 480-227-1766 or visit www.straycattheatre.org.